Mayan Civilization

Maya (indigenous people of Mexico and Central America)

Maya (mī´ə, Span. mä´yä), indigenous people of S Mexico and Central America, occupying an area comprising the Yucatán peninsula and much of the present state of Chiapas, Mexico; Guatemala and Belize; parts of El Salvador and extreme western Honduras. Speaking a group of closely related languages (with an outlier, Huastec, spoken in the Pánuco basin of Mexico), the population of Maya today is over 4 million.

Maya Prehistory

Archaeologists divide the prehistory of the Maya region into the Preclassic (c.1500 BC–AD 300), Classic (300–900), and Postclassic (900–1500) periods, and concur that in most parts of this large region the most spectacular florescence occurred during the Classic period. This was followed, in much of the area with the exception of Yucatán, by a demographic collapse at the end of which (c.AD 1100) close to 90% of the population had been lost. Although little understood, the earliest inhabitants seem to have been relatively few in number and practiced shifting cultivation.

Throughout Maya history, populations increased and agriculture, correlatively, became more intensive. Linked with this process, social organization became increasingly hierarchical, with increasing differentiations of wealth and status, shown primarily in the differential size and elaborateness of both residences and public buildings. Settlements in civic centers show a repeated pattern of arrangement of residences, pyramidal structures, and temples around courts or plazas, with buildings made of cut stone masonry, sculptured and stuccoed decorations, corbel-vault stone roofs, and paved plazas. Such groupings in small, poor rural settlements involve buildings of largely perishable materials and small size. Most of the elaborate carvings, relief and full-round, and the paintings, mural and ceramic, which are the hallmarks of Classic Maya art, come from the civic centers. These civic centers were numerous, including Copán in Honduras, El Mirador, Piedras Negras, Tikal, and Uaxactún in the N central Petén region of Guatemala, and Palenque and Uxmal in Mexico.

Neither during the Classic period nor at any other time does there seem to have been any political unification of the area as a whole. Rather, political organization seems to have been described by a series of small, city-state-like polities, each characterized by its own internal differentiation of status and power. While much earlier literature refers to professional rulers and priests, the present view is that the higher-status individuals were more probably heads of patrilineages (see kinship), and that much of the religious complex was centered on ancestor worship rather than on universalist gods. In contrast to the civilizations of central Mexico, urbanization and occupational differentiation in the Mayan region were poorly developed, even during the Classic period. On the other hand, the Classic Maya had a system of written hieroglyphic script, largely syllabic in nature, which, although once considered astronomical or religious in content, is now considered primarily dynastic and political. (Mayan writing, however, dates to the late Preclassic period.) Concomitantly, a vigesimal (base 20) numerical system was used, notable in its development of the zero as placeholder; several types of calendar reckonings were in simultaneous use.

The period following AD 900 was one of rapid decline, and many of the major cities were abandoned; it has been speculated that drought may have led to the collapse. In the heartland of the lowland Maya, most major centers had been abandoned, probably more gradually than has been supposed, by around AD 1100. In the Yucatán highlands settlement persisted, with a probable colonization of the site of Chichén Itzá by Toltec from Central Mexico. By the time of Spanish conquest, most Mayan populations were centered around small villages.

Colonial-Period Maya

The Spanish conquistadors found a number of small polities in northern Yucatán, but, on their march into Central America, encountered few inhabitants. The introduction of new diseases by the Spanish contributed to the decimation of Maya populations, leaving the region still more sparsely settled.

For the remaining groups, the Spanish conquest led to the imposition of Catholicism and the establishment of various European forms of political organization. Although this imposition was not completely effective, Spaniards either eliminated or incorporated the indigenous elite into the new colonial system, leaving the Maya-speaking population a relatively undifferentiated mass of rural peasants. Administrative centers, inhabited largely by Spaniards, were established in the 16th cent. at Mérida in Yucatán, San Cristobal in Chiapas, and Antigua Guatemala in Guatemala. The latter was destroyed in a series of earthquakes in the 18th cent., prompting Spaniards to move the administrative center to Guatemala City.

For the most part, the Maya region was peripheral to the Spanish American colonies because the lack of mineral wealth, the relatively sparse population, and the lack of land suitable for the cultivation of export crops. Taxes were collected through church tithes and through the encomienda system. Only in a few coastal regions of Guatemala and Chiapas were plantations established for the cultivation of coffee and sugar. But even these were difficult to maintain, owing to the prevalence of malaria and other tropical diseases in lowland areas and the difficulties involved in extracting labor from adjacent highland areas, where slowly increasing numbers of Maya led relatively autonomous lives.

Independence Period

Beginning in the late 18th cent., demand for cordage and fibers on the world market stimulated the formation of enormous henequen plantations throughout the northern part of the Yucatán Peninsula. Previously, villagers in the region needed only to pay relatively modest taxes and submit to occasional labor drafts in order to be left alone by colonial authorities. By the end of the 18th cent., however, village lands were suddenly subject to expropriation by Spaniards. As the plantations grew in size and number, labor drafts became increasingly onerous, particularly among groups whose lands had been expropriated. This combination of pressures led to a widespread rebellion (1847–54), known as the caste wars, in which the explicit goal was to drive all European populations off the Yucatán Peninsula, a goal that was nearly realized. The Spaniards were never able to fully suppress the conflagration, leaving isolated areas outside the plantation zone beyond effective governmental control throughout the 19th cent.

The Twentieth Century

In the first half of the 20th cent., most of the Maya region looked much as it had centuries earlier. Society was divided between a commercial and administrative elite group of Spanish-speaking whites and ladinos, who resided in the larger towns, and a much larger group of Maya-speaking agriculturists, who resided in rural villages. In few areas of Latin America was a racial divide so clearly demarcated, with castelike divisions separating ladinos from the indigenous population. Although the political division between Mexico and Guatemala occurred early in the 19th cent., there were few discernible consequences prior to the years following the Mexican revolution (1910–17). At this time a land redistribution program, together with a set of legal guarantees preventing the expropriation of village lands, were applied to rural populations throughout Mexico; in contrast, no such guarantees were respected with regard to the Guatemalan population.

Demographic growth among Maya-speaking populations increasingly led to pressure on available resources, leading to widespread deforestation and erosion and forcing many groups to adopt commercial specializations to supplement income derived from agriculture. Among the better-known examples of the latter are the colorful cotton textiles produced in the Guatemalan highlands, marketed both locally and in industrialized countries. Also in Guatemala, seasonal labor on the growing number of coffee plantations along the Pacific coast became increasingly important throughout the first half of the 20th cent. Beginning in the 1930s and 40s, improved communications throughout the Maya region opened many new and often local economic opportunities for wage employment and commercial activity.

As Maya populations have become more tightly integrated into national economies, their distinctive ethnic markers, including dress, language, and religious practices, have often been abandoned, leaving increasing numbers culturally indistinguishable from the ladino population. Conversely, economically autonomous communities have used the same ethnic markers as a means of preserving the integrity of group boundaries and corporately held resources. Partly for this reason, the Guatemalan military unleashed a campaign of terror beginning in the mid-1970s, specifically targeting the indigenous population. All markers of traditional ethnic identity, including distinctive dress, language, and even Catholicism, became targets of military repression. Village lands were subject to widespread seizure, and government-sponsored resettlement programs were widely applied. In the 1970s and 80s there were tens of thousands of deaths and "disappearances" and an exodus of many hundreds of thousands, most from Maya-speaking regions, seeking sanctuary primarily in Mexico and the United States. However, over a million Maya remain in Guatemala. In Mexico, a 1994 uprising in Chiapas drew much of its strength from the support of Mayan peasants.


See K. Warren, Symbols of Subordination (1979); N. M. Farriss, Maya Society Under Colonial Rule (1984); M. Coe, The Maya, (4th ed. 1987); G. D. Jones, Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (1989); N. Hammond, Ancient Maya Civilization (1990); S. Martin and N. Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2000); D. Webster, The Fall of the Ancient Maya (2002).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Mayan Civilization: Selected full-text books and articles

The World of the Ancient Maya By John S. Henderson Cornell University Press, 1997 (2nd edition)
The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, & Ancient Cities By James D. Nations University of Texas Press, 2006
Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1648-1812 By Robert W. Patch Stanford University Press, 1993
The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom By Grant D. Jones Stanford University Press, 1998
Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya: Theory, Comparison, and Synthesis By Takeshi Inomata; Stephen D. Houston Westview Press, vol.1, 2001
Royal Courts of the Ancient Maya: Data and Case Studies By Takeshi Inomata; Stephen D. Houston Westview Press, vol.2, 2001
Resurgent Voices in Latin America: Indigenous Peoples, Political Mobilization, and Religious Change By Edward L. Cleary; Timothy J. Steigenga Rutgers University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Interwoven Histories: The Catholic Church and the Maya, 1940 to the Present" and Chap. 6 "'God Was Already Here When Columbus Arrived': Inculturation Theology and the Mayan Movement in Guatemala"
Time and the Highland Maya By Barbara Tedlock University of New Mexico Press, 1992 (Revised edition)
The Bird Who Cleans the World: And Other Mayan Fables By Victor Montejo; Wallace Kaufman Curbstone Press, 1991
FREE! An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs By Sylvantus Griswold Morley Government Printing Office, 1915
Looking for a topic idea? Use Questia's Topic Generator
Author Advanced search


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.